In the coming months, you will hear a lot from right-wing politicians about the need to "empower parents" to have more influence over their children's education. As a general concept, this makes sense. Parents should be involved in all aspects of their child's life.
Aligning yourself with parents is also savvy politics. Everyone has parents and millions of people are parents themselves. Parents, for the most part, love their kids. What kind of monster is against parent empowerment?
But what does this mean in practice? While empowering parents sounds nice, politicians who have adopted the mantra are pushing to curtail academic freedom and ban books. It's less about parent involvement in their child's education and more about imposing cultural conservatism on every aspect of public education.
In Oklahoma, State Senator Rob Standridge (R) recently introduced legislation that would prohibit public school libraries from carrying "books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, gender identity, or books that contain content of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know about or approve of before their child is exposed to it."
Under Standridge's legislation, parents are the sole arbiter of what books violate this standard. The bill would require schools to remove any book within 30 days of a parent's request. If the book is not removed, "the employee tasked with removing the book is to be dismissed… and he or she cannot be employed by a public school district or public charter school for 2 years." Parents could also sue the school for "monetary damages" which "shall include a minimum of $10,000.00 per day the book requested for removal is not removed."
In an interview with local media, Standridge said he wants to empower parents to purge "transgender, queer and other sexually related books" from school libraries. Standridge says "reasonable parents" don't want their children to have access to books that deal with LGBTQ issues and "he hasn’t seen any examples of heterosexual books" that would be banned. But Standridge's bill allows parents to object to any book that contains "content of a sexual nature," which certainly includes, for example, Anna Karenina, and the Bible.
Standridge is not an aberration. The closing ad of Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R), who successfully ran on a "parent empowerment" platform, featured a mother who unsuccessfully tried to ban Beloved, Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, from her son's AP English class.
Beloved does contain explicit sexual content, but it is also a masterpiece that forces readers to grapple with the realities of slavery. Reading Beloved makes many high school students — and many readers of any age — feel uncomfortable. But that is the point. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to new perspectives is also the purpose of education.
But Youngkin won and his victory has inspired others to follow his lead. For years, people have tried to ban some of the greatest books ever written. But rarely has book-banning had so much political salience.
In 2022, there are efforts by politicians across the country to ban hundreds of books from public schools. It is a frontal assault on academic freedom.
Messing with books in Texas
In Texas, State Representative Matt Krause (R), who is running for attorney general, sent an "inquiry" to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and several Texas school districts regarding a list of 850 books. The inquiry asks the school districts "if they have these books, how many copies they have and how much money they spent on the books." Krause also asks the districts to identify any other books in their libraries that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex."
Krause's list includes The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a work of history published in 2020 that the New York Times called "an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far," and the graphic novel version of The Handmaid's Tale. It also includes many books that touch on LGBTQ issues targeted by Standridge in Oklahoma.
Krause did not list the purpose of his inquiry, stating only that he was empowered to request anything "necessary for the information of the legislature or for the welfare and protection of state citizens."
In response to Krause's inquiry, one school district in San Antonio "identified and immediately removed 414 books" for review. According to a school district spokesperson, the books were removed "out of an abundance of caution" and to "ensure they did not have any obscene or vulgar material in them." The spokesperson "did not say how long the review would take." A group of students started a petition in protest, saying Krause's list targets books that address issues of concern to minority and LGBTQ students.
Krause also has a powerful ally in Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R). In November, Abbott wrote the TEA claiming that "Texas students have been exposed to pornographic books and content in Texas public schools." Abbott claimed that "the Texas Association of School Boards has refused to assist their member school boards to address this issue." Abbott instructed the TEA "to investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography" and "refer any instance of pornography being provided to minors under the age of 18 for the prosecution to the fullest extent of the law."
Abbott was not referring to pornography but "two memoirs about LGBTQ characters that include graphic images and descriptions of sex." One of the memoirs, In The Dream House, is a critically-acclaimed book that deals with an abusive relationship between two women. Abbott is advocating not only banning these books but prosecuting school librarians.
As a result of Abbott's demand, the TEA has reportedly launched an investigation into one Texas school district.